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“The Un-Limits of Faith”

Matthew 17:14-23
Bob DeGray
January 19, 2014

Key Sentence

Faith can move mountains, but cannot change God’s plan.


I. When we are faithless he remains faithful. (Matthew 17:14-18)
II. But he multiples even a little faith (Matthew 17:19-21)
III. Yet never at the expense of God’s plan (Matthew 17:22-23)


If you’ve been around Trinity any time I hope you’ve sensed that faith is important to us. We teach over and over that salvation is a free gift of God, taken hold of by faith, by trust in Jesus. And we walk as his children by faith. And we’ve learned this emphasis, at least party, from Jesus himself, who says a great deal about faith in the Gospels. In today’s text, Matthew 17:14-23 he tells us that faith can move mountains, that there are no limits to what faith can do. But at the same time Matthew, the author of the Gospel, reminds us that whatever faith does, it does in accordance with God’s sovereign will and purpose.

Our text is Matthew 7:14-23. This is after the transfiguration, in which Jesus took Peter, James and John up on a mountain and was transfigured; some of his heavenly glory was revealed. Moses and Elijah, two of the Bibles greatest figures, appeared and spoke with him. Then God the Father himself spoke, saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The Father affirms the Son’s glory and authority, even over Moses and Elijah.

But on the way down the mountain Jesus told the disciples not to speak of the event until after he was raised from the dead. A few verses later, referring to John the Baptist, he says “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him what they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Jesus is convinced that his suffering, death and resurrection is God’s plan, God’s will for him. Yet at the end of Matthew he prays for God to change the plan, to take the cup of suffering, separation and death away.

All that is context for today’s study on the limits, or the un-limits, of faith. Matthew 7:14-18 When they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.

Matthew's account is, as usual, much shorter than Mark's, almost abrupt. In verse 14 Matthew’s narrative suddenly encounters a crowd, but Mark explains “When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him.” Only then does the man come up, kneel before Jesus and explain about his son.

In Mark the father describes the boy’s symptoms, but Matthew only says that he is an epileptic and his seizures often cause him to fall into the fire or into water. Matthew does not intend by his medical sounding words to divorce the boy’s problem from the spiritual realm. That separation is a modern. Instead we are to see this as a spiritual battle with medical implications. That’s not to say all medical problems have demonic roots, nor that all demonic activity results in physical symptoms. But our attempts to categorize things as mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual are not always helpful. We need to address the whole person, even when dealing with issues that seem focused on one.

Verse 16: Despite the fact that the disciples had already been sent out to heal and cast out demons, they had been unable to do either in this case. Verse 17: And Jesus responded, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Jesus doesn’t limit his lament to just the nine disciples who failed, but widens it to a generation characterized by unbelief - like our own. This unbelief, Jesus says, is not innocent, not from lack of evidence, but a willful neglect or distortion of the evidence. And Jesus is disappointed: “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” His disciples' unbelief is painful to him, but Jesus’ mission is to endure even this. As for the miracle, verse 18, Matthew is succinct as usual, leaving no doubt of Jesus' power. The boy is healed "from that moment."

So what we see in this section is simple: Jesus can do this. Even when faith falters, even if we were to willfully dismiss the possibility of the miraculous, Jesus can still do it. He’s God and we are not, he’s the Messiah sent to rescue, he sees the hearts of men, and has power and authority to accomplish what we think is impossible. It’s not wise to discount the miraculous power of God.

Well documented accounts of his power in the modern world are easily found near and far and of many kinds. Let me start with one of my favorites. A lot of us kind of draw a line of the miraculous at death. God may intervene prior to that but he’s not going to intervene after that. The Gospels don’t agree with us: every funeral Jesus attended he disrupted, including his own. But it is a different day on this side of the cross, and there is a difference between being raised to be with Jesus while he walked this earth and being sent back from his presence. Nonetheless, God occasionally does this.

One of the better witnesses is Paul Eshelman, director of Campus Crusade’s JESUS Film Project. He says “The Malto tribe lives in the north of India. The people are resistant, even hostile, to the gospel. It is an area saturated with hundreds of false gods. A "JESUS" film team approached the Malto tribe, but the resistance was so stiff that they went on to more receptive villages.

A few days later, a 16-year-old girl died in one of the Malto villages. Many gathered to mourn her, and they were about to bury her when the girl miraculously awoke! In disbelief the people told her, "Then you were not dead!" "Yes, I was dead," she told them, "but God told me I must come back and tell you about the true God." The villagers began to ask, "Who is this true God?" She went on to tell them that it was the God proclaimed by the film teams they had turned away. "God has given me seven days to tell as many people as I can that He is real." The next day, she found the film team in another village and told them her story. For the next seven days, they showed the film to Malto villages. Before every crowd she proclaimed, "I was dead but God has sent me back to tell you that this film is about the true and living God. You need to believe in Jesus." Then after the seventh day, although physically she appeared fine, she collapsed and died.” Eshelman explained that as a result, hundreds turned to the living Christ, and at least six churches were established.

Closer to home, many of us have been praying for the Gauley family, relatives of the Wallisers. Their son Sean was in a head on collision coming home from college on December 18th. He had broken legs, bruised lungs and major head injuries. The family spent the last four weeks in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally took Sean off life support last Monday, recognizing that the Lord had called him home. So this wasn’t a miracle in the prayed-for sense. But the attitude of the family, their reliance on God, their clinging to Scripture through endless ups and downs, these were miracles. After they took Sean off life support, the Gauley’s pastor wrote “Shortly after the Lord called for Sean's soul, one of the doctors came into the room and said "You are the most amazing family we have ever served in this trauma department. You have inspired us all!" We reminded them this was entirely due to the grace of God.” This is no less a miraculous evidence of faith than a healing would have been.

So we need to learn that Jesus multiplies even a very small faith. Verses 19-20 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

The disciples who had failed come to Jesus and ask why they couldn’t drive out the demon. The reason, Jesus says, is because of their "little faith." That’s a literal translation of the word. But he seems to have referred more to the quality of their faith than the quantity. It was poor faith: it didn’t quite have its eye on the right object. The disciples seem to have forgotten that the power didn’t reside in them. They had placed faith in themselves, and been disappointed.

This is one of the subtle traps of the Christian life. All too often if we see God work we begin to forget it was God who worked, and to think we somehow do the work ourselves. Being dependent when you are in desperate circumstances is challenging, but remaining dependent when things seem to be working is even harder. As we see God work our cries become less desperate and dependent; and then, usually, his intervention becomes less obvious as well. We need to keep eyes of faith on Jesus. I think that’s what the disciples had lost.

Jesus goes on to say that if they had faith like a mustard seed, they could say to ‘this mountain,’ the one they have just descended from, ‘move from here to there’ and it would move; nothing would be impossible for them. Nothing. That’s a pretty big promise. The image, of course, is wonderful: ‘a grain of mustard seed,’ smaller that the tip of a man’s finger, visualizing a tiny amount of faith. If these disciples could sustain even a small amount of true dependence, much more than healing one boy could be done. As I showed in Children’s corner: God is a faith multiplier. He’s the lever and the pivot. He takes even a tiny touch of genuine faith and multiplies by some enormous grace factor and does in response to that faith what only he can do, what we can never do.

Before we get to a couple of more stories showing God’s work, I want to touch on verse 21. There is no verse 21. Most modern translations of Matthew go from 20 straight to 22, because several of the oldest manuscripts do just that. Others have the words ‘But this kind never comes out except by fasting and prayer.’ It’s similar to Mark 9:29 “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” That’s an important truth, but I don’t think it’s the one Matthew was emphasizing. His focus was on faith. And we know he often condenses things. It may be that a copyist added Mark’s phrase as a side note, a cross reference, and later generations of copyists assumed it was in the text.

What does faith that can move mountains look like? I recently read a book about Trans World Radio, which broadcasts the gospel into closed countries. But in 1960, when they built their station in Monte Carlo their budget was $10,000 a year. To build they needed a half million dollar down payment, $83,000 every other month for a year. On the day of the second payment they were $13,000 short. $5,000 arrived that morning, but the director shuffled to the bank with the knotted stomach of a schoolboy going to the principal’s office. At the door a co-worker caught up to him with another $5000 check. Missed by just $3,000! As he slumped in the seat of the bank president’s office, he learned that some money had just been wired to the bank. It was $3,000. What I love about that story is the little faith. The director is discouraged, which doesn’t mean he had no faith, and it doesn’t mean he had inauthentic faith, it just means he had only a mustard seed of faith – and God provided.

Another arena for God’s miraculous work is relationships. I’ve heard so many stories over the years of marriages restored by mustard seed faith, desperate prayers. I read recently about Deborah & Clayton Bryant. After five years of marriage they were miserable, their deep anger fueled by financial and parenting issues. When Clayton lost his job, they hit rock bottom. Finally Deborah packed up, took the kids and left. Not long after she filed for divorce.

Broke and alone, Clayton realized how horribly he had treated his family. He knew enough to cry out to God and even as he got a job and got back on his feet, he began to pray every day that God would restore his marriage. Months went by and nothing happened. Less than a week before the divorce would become final, Clayton finally gave up hope. “That night I changed my prayer. I said, ‘Lord, I just pray that my wife would find happiness.’ Less than an hour later, she called me and said, ‘We gotta work this out.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

What Clayton didn’t know was that Deborah had also reached out to God. She says “I’d been doing a lot of soul searching, but suddenly I broke down and cried out to God to come into my life and forgive me for the things I’d done wrong. I thought, 'I really want to make my marriage work.' Deborah moved back in and they started going to a church that helped them follow Jesus. It wasn’t easy rebuilding their marriage. Deborah says, “The Lord did it. I could never have done it on my own. The Lord gave me the strength to forget all the hurt that I had and just concentrate on doing what He wanted me to do.” Their faith was really small, just an authentic crying out to God. But he miraculously healed their marriage. And there are people who are or have been part of Trinity who have seen him work miraculously in their relationships as well.

What we’ve seen so far is that the miraculous power God wants to deploy in our behalf is unlimited. Jesus says ‘nothing will be impossible.’ Do we believe that? Do we believe Sean Gauley could have been healed? We should – he could. But that leads us to hard questions: If all these people were praying for Sean, why wasn’t he healed? Surely there was faith the size of a mustard seed and more behind those prayers. But even if God did do a miracle of strengthening and grace, He didn’t do the miracle of healing.

I think we get an insight into the ‘why’ of that in verses 22 and 23: As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

This second major prediction occurs as they return to Capernaum, verse 24, from the Mount of Transfiguration. It is similar to the first one: he correctly prophecies his betrayal, his death, though not yet the manner of it, and his resurrection.

This, as we said, is remarkable: any man who can make this kind of prediction with absolute accuracy is to be trusted in everything else he says. Verse 23 “they were greatly distressed.” The disciples are beginning to process the repetition of this idea that Jesus is going to be killed. Mark and Luke say the disciples didn’t understand, but Matthew simply says they were distressed, they grieved. They hadn’t gotten past the death part to the resurrection.

Why does Matthew sandwich the ‘faith can move mountains’ verses between two clear predictions of Jesus’ death? I think part of it is to remind us that when Scripture says something like ‘nothing will be impossible to you,’ or ‘a little faith can move mountains’ or ‘your prayers will be answered,’ there is always either spoken or unspoken, an ‘according to his will.’ In the dance of Divine sovereignty and Human freedom our prayers and our choices do have consequences, but those consequences are woven into the sovereign divine plan of God. So when we pray for a miracle we may see a miracle, as we’ve heard in these accounts today, or we may see a different kind of miracle, as in Sean Gauley’s story, or we may not see how God responds; or we may be told no, that’s not my will, that’s not what I want for you.

The most compelling example of this, a moment worthy of our deep, repeated meditation, is when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays, very specifically, for the miraculous removal of the cup of suffering he is called to bear. And if all we had in our hands was the truth that nothing is impossible and faith can move mountains, we would expect the Father to remove the cup. But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He says “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” The simple truth is there are times when God’s will is different than ours. Not all need, not all relational pain, not all sickness will be miraculously healed. This is not because there are limits on God’s power or even his desire to heal, but because his compassion sometimes has higher goals and more important outcomes than will be accomplished by miraculous intervention.

So Matthew embeds the truth of God’s unlimited responsiveness to the tiniest authentic faith into the truth of the necessity of his sovereign plan. We can pray with every confidence, we can pray with mustard seed faith, and God can multiply our feeble faith with miraculous responses, but he will not do so in a way that derails the perfect good he’s doing for us and in his kingdom.

Let me close with an example very close to my heart. This is an unfinished story, but an amazing one. Some of you know Chad Barrett. He was the pastor at the Free Church in LaMarque, Faith Bible Church, for a couple of years. He’s now the director of Child Evangelism Fellowship in the Houston area.

Over three years ago, on August 23, 2010 Chad’s eight year old daughter Kristina received a diagnosis of Clear Cell Sarcoma. This is a very rare cancer with no standard treatment. It appeared as a boney lump on Kristina’s right shoulder; later it was found in her lungs. Chad recounts the phone call where they heard the news “Mr. Barrett,” said the doctor. “I need you and your wife to hear me together. And I need you to be where you can have privacy.” Here it was, the sum of all fears for any parent. Melissa and I sat on Kristina’s bed, behind a closed door. The kids played in the living room. I put the phone on speaker. "I'm sony, Mr. and Mrs. Barrett, but your daughter, indeed, has cancer."

“Our hearts pounded - I thought I was going to vomit. Fear didn't just grip our hearts, it strangled them. We feared our child with cancer would die, and we feared our other three children would suffer greatly for it. The air was sucked out of the room, and we couldn't breathe. It felt like our lungs were collapsing, and we could feel the blood drain from our brains. Even writing this brings back some of those feelings. But we called our parents, and soon oxygen came. We were surrounded by God's people. Our parents spoke truth to us, and we were comforted. They felt our sorrow and nurtured us.

Over the next months Kristina endured all the tortures of childhood cancer. Much of the bone in her right arm was replaced. She underwent chemo and lost her hair. Dozens of friends and acquaintances shaved their heads to show her it was cool. She endured much pain. I saw a blog post from 2011 praising God because ‘she only had two shots of morphine today.’ Over the months the cancer was slowed, at times stopped, but never went away entirely. Every checkup had the potential for catastrophic news. Hundreds of people prayed.

So how does faith play into this? Chad says “Our faith in God is only built when it is tested. God will not fail. He is that powerful, so there is no reason for our faith to do anything else but increase - except for our foolishness in thinking God is not good. We must continue to think and speak truth. Faith says that no matter what happens to our daughter, God is good. Faith tells us whether He heals her or takes her home, He is in this. Nothing will happen to Kristina unless our Heavenly Father allows it. And God has our best interests at the core of His heart. We believe God will heal our daughter! But if He doesn't, we will still rest in His grace and extend His glory. We know for certain that we will be OK - that Kristina will be OK. This is truth. And our suffering is causing our spirituality to strengthen. It's causing our trust in the Lord to solidify. Therefore, we are grateful for this suffering. We will not be crushed. We will not despair. We will not be forsaken, or destroyed. This is certain. Because,” as Chad always say, “our God is bigger.”

In 2012 Kristina was mostly stable. The Make-a-Wish foundation asked her for a wish, and she chose to go to Chicago and visit the production studios for Veggie-tales. She sat in a sound studio with Mike Nawrocki, aka Larryboy, and recorded her line, the voice of a little girl pea in the Veggie-tale “The League of Incredible Vegetables.” She did a good job too. On February 6, 2013 Chad wrote “Tumors stable! Thanking God for that! Need wisdom--lots of it. Our doctor says Kristina is the only known survivor with metastasized Clear Cell Sarcoma who has lived this long.” But on July 24, 2013 he wrote “Hey praying friends, Kristina's scans were not good. Her tumors have grown a bit and they found a couple new ones. Melissa and I are meeting with her doc tomorrow morning. Thank you for praying for her and us.”

In August he wrote “So thankful for each of you walking with us during this painful time. You are a great source of comfort. Thanks for being used of God in our lives. We remain hopeful and believing God will somehow remove the cancer from our little girl's body. One day at a time... Here we go...” Several new clinical drugs trials were considered. On September 25, he wrote “Just found out: Our insurance covers the special meds for Kristina! This is great news. One bottle is $8000. Love seeing how our God answers your prayers!”

A month into the trial of this new medicine, Kristina had begun to develop some severe side effects, especially almost unmanageable joint pain. On November 1st last year they went back for a scan. “To all our praying friends ... Kristina's doc called with her scan results. Please read his words... and rejoice ‘The pulmonary metastatic disease has significantly improved since the previous scan. Most of the pulmonary nodules are no longer seen on today's scan. Some nodules that are seen have become smaller and more groundglass in appearance when compared to the previous study. No new lesions are seen."

The drug was continued, the side effects severe. A month later Chad said “Incredible results on Kristina!!! Even better than last time! All they see is most likely scar tissue! Dr. Thompson said “if we were simply handed Kristina’s scans we would not even be suspicious of cancer.” Chad’s wife Melissa writes “I wake up and think again, is this true? Was yesterday's phone call a dream? Tears, again, but no heavy heart! Only wonder and gratefulness! The same God who held me the morning I woke up in the valley is here with me on the mountaintop! And I will sing again, Great is Thy faithfulness! Your mercies are new every morning! I will continue to put my hope in You!

Today Kristina is still on the drugs, having to take it slow because of weight loss and side effects. The story isn’t over. But nothing is impossible for God; there are no limits to mustard seed faith, especially when we pray ‘your will be done.’